January 3

This Day in History

Literary

Jan 3, 1841:

Herman Melville sails for the South Seas

On this day in 1841, Herman Melville ships out on the whaler Acushnet to the South Seas.

Melville was born in New York City in 1819. A childhood bout of scarlet fever permanently weakened his eyesight. He went to sea at age 19, as a cabin boy on a ship bound for Liverpool. Two years later, he sailed for the South Seas.

The Acushnet anchored in Polynesia, where Melville took part in a mutiny. He was thrown in jail in Tahiti, escaped, and wandered around the South Sea islands for two years. In 1846, he published his first novel, Typee, based on his Polynesian adventures. His second book, Omoo (1847), also dealt with the region. The two novels were popular successes, although his third, Mardi (1849), more experimental in nature, failed to catch on with the public. In 1851, Harper & Brothers published Moby-Dick. The book flopped and was not recognized as a classic for many years.

Meanwhile, Melville bought a farm near Nathaniel Hawthorne's house in Massachusetts, and the two became close friends. Melville continued writing novels and highly acclaimed short stories. Putnam's Monthly published "Bartleby the Scrivener" in 1853 and "Benito Cereno" in 1855.

In 1866, Melville won appointment as a customs inspector in New York, which brought him a stable income. He published several volumes of poetry. He continued to write until his death in 1891, and his last novel, Billy Budd, was not published until 1924.

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